The Confederate government had purchased the Habana, a merchant steamer that made regular runs between Havana and New Orleans, in April. The Habana was designated a naval cruiser, fitted with five guns, and rechristened the C.S.S. Sumter. She had license to seek and destroy Federal shipping. Captain Raphael Semmes, a U.S. Navy veteran of over 30 years, was given command of this new warship.
In mid-June, Semmes led the Sumter downriver from New Orleans to run the Federal blockade at Head of Passes. Semmes reported observing three blockading vessels at Pass a L’Outre, 40 miles southeast of New Orleans in the Mississippi River’s southern delta. Among the vessels were the faster U.S.S. Brooklyn and the heavily armed U.S.S. Powhatan stationed at the Southwest Pass.
The Sumter lay in wait for a chance to elude the blockaders, and despite being in plain sight for over a week, none of the Federal ships came up to Head of Passes to block the Sumter’s exit. On the morning of the 30th, a supply ship delivered 100 barrels of coal to the Sumter as Semmes received word that the Brooklyn had gone off to pursue a sail. Seizing the opportunity, Semmes had the Sumter’s steam up and her anchor raised within 10 minutes.
The Brooklyn may have gone off, but she was still within eight miles of the Sumter, and when her captain saw the Confederate ship moving through the delta, he had the Brooklyn move to block the Sumter’s escape. Semmes continued ahead despite the Brooklyn closing in; he would either run the blockade or be captured. The Sumter entered the Gulf of Mexico, but the Brooklyn’s superior speed enabled her to close to within four miles. To Semmes’s good fortune, a morning storm brought in a favorable wind that finally allowed the Sumter to escape pursuit.
The Sumter’s crew gave three cheers for the effort, and the Brooklyn turned back. Semmes proceeded with instructions “to do the enemy’s commerce the greatest injury in the shortest time.” The Sumter headed for the Atlantic and would soon become the prime example of the Confederacy’s eventual transition from privateering to commerce raiding.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat) (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
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- Stern, Philip Van Doren, Secret Missions of the Civil War. New York: Wings Books, a division of Random House, 1959 (1990 edition, from “Washington on the Eve of the War” by Charles P. Stone, from Century Magazine, Jul 1883.
- Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.